The Nameless Girl by Whitney McShan

When I reflect and examine my life up until the events which I will detail here, I have great difficulty relating to the girl who I once was. I feel as though I am straining to make whole a shattered image, all refracted light, and distorted angles that I cannot piece together.  The only tie that binds me to that girl now is unending death. I bore witness to so much death that it has in its own way become prosaic. This story begins with death, and I hope now that it ends in death as well.

My father owned a funeral home, and it is where we lived all of my life. He worked as both the embalmer and the funeral director. Throughout my teen years I assisted where it was appropriate, primarily with small, administrative tasks. I fear that through thoughtless errors I often caused more work for him, but he was rather progressive and believed it important that I learn the business. When I was nineteen, I was given the role of mortuary assistant and became more involved with the preparation of those who in decorum we referred to as “clients.”

Our town was not large, nor did it have anything of note beyond a mental asylum that sat 12 miles to the East of our home. It had only been in operation for three years at the time of these events, but it was not infrequent for us to be called upon to direct the funerals of those who had died on their premises. To my admittedly limited knowledge, the primary causes of death were age and disease. Though, occasionally we would receive murders, suicides, and even once a guard who died under circumstances that remained mysterious to me.

It was the summer after I began my role as mortuary assistant when we received my first and only client from the asylum, and while I do not now recall any particularities like the day of the week or the time of day, I vividly remember how hot it was. When my father informed me that a new client would be dropped off shortly, I could not shake the dread that immediately settled upon me like a thick, enveloping fog. I attributed it to the heat, as working with the dead in temperatures over 80 degrees was immensely challenging. But, at that point I had gained enough experience to learn that there was little to do but get on with it, so albeit begrudgingly, that is what I did. 

That afternoon father had been occupied with creating funeral arrangements for a well-respected local family, so I took it upon myself to receive the body. I sat on the porch so as to stay in the shade while I waited for the delivery. There was a pleasant smell of wildflowers on the breeze, and a persistent, low buzz as is common for the time of year. However, my attention continued to be stolen away by the sharper sound of horseflies circling in their nagging way around me. I had little skin exposed, yet somehow still was continuously assaulted with their painful bites. Just as I was certain my entire body would be overtaken by a rash as a result, I heard the rhythmic sounds of approaching horse hooves.

As the modest funeral coach rounded our dirt path past a dense bunch of oak trees, I caught a glimpse of the driver. I recognized him as Frederick Davies, a ghastly fellow with slender, gaunt features and an almost grey pallor. I once made the observation to father that Mr. Davies looked quite a bit more like one of our clients that some of those which he had delivered, but he scolded me, reminding me of the importance of Mr. Davies work and the toll it likely took on him. Still, though I cannot name the cause or truly the nature of the feeling itself, I did not enjoy his company. As the coach slowed in front of the porch where I sat, I felt a growing sense of unease.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said. 

I stood and returned a courteous nod.

 “Good afternoon, sir.” Motioning to the back of the carriage I asked, “Who do we have here?”

“Strange one, she was,” he said as he hopped off the driver’s box. He walked slowly as he rounded the coach to the back door, “Though I suppose they all are.”

Inside the coach was an unadorned wooden box which I knew from previous experience the asylum used to transport all of their deceased. To the left of the box sat a distressed brown leather case. Mr. Davies opened the case, and provided me with a folder from inside. I glanced at the first page, to confirm all the necessary details were included.

“No family?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I do not prepare the paperwork ma’am. All I know of this one is that she was odder than many I have seen, and that’s says something.”

“I imagine that it does.”

With surprising grace given his sinewy frame, Mr. Davies unloaded the box from the coach onto an unfolded wheeled contraption. He looked at me expectantly.

“Right then, let’s bring her inside.”

I led them through the back halls of the funeral home to our small embalming parlor. It was a solemn room designed for functionality above all else. Despite the years, I had never gotten used to the smell. No matter how clean it was, or maybe because of it, the air always smelled of rubber and something slightly toxic. It was both too dull and too sharp and made my head ache. I think in convincing myself that was the reason I avoided the room I felt more courageous than I was.

There were no windows, and I had only lit one lamp prior to Mr. Davies arrival. The dim, flickering light cast shadows that I am sure less practical minds would find quite frightening. In the center of the parlor sat a worn, utilitarian table where father prepared the clients for their final rest. There were three metals cabinets placed against the walls that stored the tools of our trade. Atop the counters were large glass jars of the necessary chemicals for embalming.

I removed myself from the room to allow Mr. Davies to transfer the client onto the table. It was silly, I knew, and I felt like a little child, but still. There was something I found so undignified in the act of moving the dead, and Mr. Davies did unsettle me so.

After only a few moments, the door creaked open, and Mr. Davies pushed the now empty box ahead of him. On its top sat a single piece of paper. He motioned towards it, “Will you sign please, ma’am to confirm you have received her?”

I obliged, and with that our business was concluded. I led him back outside and stood in the shade as he loaded his coach. Once settled into the driver’s box he gave a curt nod goodbye and gently whipped the reigns to spur its horses into motion. I sat and watched until the coach was beyond the oak trees and out of view.

It was strange then, the sense of dread I still felt. I had attributed it to both the heat and the visit from Mr. Davies, but it seemed to be a heavy presence stuck upon me. I was still holding the document he provided on our new client, and in what I suppose was procrastination I decided to review it before starting my work.

While it was uncommon, it was not entirely unheard of for us to receive clients that had no known familial relations. I could not recall any client so young as this one though who had no family. According to the document, her age was unknown, but the physicians estimated that she must have been in her early twenties. Her name was also unknown. The institution appeared to call her Mary, but I assumed that was simply out of necessity. There were a few notes scrawled about the page that indicated the physicians believed her to be schizophrenic and delusional. While no witnesses were named, it stated that she died of suicide. She somehow secreted herself away in the medication room over the dinner hour and took large quantities of a variety of anti-psychotic drugs. She was not found by the orderlies until this morning.

Suicide meant that she might be denied a Christian burial. How sad it was to lose all so young, and to be divorced from even God’s grace. But perhaps he would see fit to show the poor girl mercy given her mental failings. I would have to remember to say a prayer for her.

I certainly felt no better after reading the document, but I knew I should not delay starting my work any longer. Father would handle the embalming, but I needed to prepare the poor girl first.

I deposited her file in a desk drawer where we stored our other client documents from the month, and then went next to the washing room where I changed into my plainer working clothes and apron. Upon my return to the embalming parlor, I found that Mr. Davies had covered the client with a grimy off-white sheet with faded, horizontal red stripes. It was not one of ours, so it must have come from the asylum with her. 

I tied my hair back out of my face and lit a few more lamps, making the room feel a bit less eerie. My role as an assistant was to prepare her for embalming, which consisted primarily of washing her, combing and styling her hair, and sometimes I helped with the application of make-up. I gathered the wash bucket, cloths, and soaps from our supply cabinets and set everything up on a small metal stand next to the embalming table.

I pulled back the sheet, exposing her face and gasped. She was strikingly beautiful, and while I had no conscious expectations of her appearance, I suppose that I did think of asylum patients as more unfortunate looking, flawed as though that prejudice may have been. Her skin was smooth and without blemishes, and I would swear that it seemed almost translucent in the lamp light. She had deeply dark brunette hair which laid atop her slim shoulders. Her lips were so full and crimson that I thought to myself how odd that she would have applied makeup before her suicide. I noticed then that her lips were slightly parted, revealing sparkling white teeth. Something in her expression deepened my sense of unease. I was not so learned as my father, but I had seen a great many corpses throughout my life. I could not name why, but she appeared differently to me than any of them.

I dipped my cloth into the wash bucket, and gently ran it across her lips to remove her makeup, but none came away. In disbelief, I repeated the motion several more times, adding more soap or warmer water. She was not wearing any makeup. I could not understand how a woman who died the evening prior would still have such vital colors about her. Truly I felt that I must have looked more like the dead than she.

I felt such paranoia then and I was embarrassed by it, but I watched her. With such intensity I stared at her chest, straining to see even a hint of shallow movement. I felt her neck searching for a pulse, however faint. I cannot say for how long I did this, but it was a considerable period. Of course, there was nothing. The young woman was dead, and selfishly I was grateful because that meant no one had witnessed me behaving so foolishly.

I took a steadying breath and finished washing her. After combing and braiding her hair, I covered her once again with one of our clean sheets, disposing of the filthy one she arrived in. I emptied and sanitized the wash bucket, and with forced meticulousness put away all of my supplies. My work was done, and that was a mercy. While I have never been particularly squeamish, I can admit that even in the best of times I did not enjoy my profession. It was my father who handled the more gruesome aspects, but I unfortunately had to bear witness to most of them. This time however, I felt so deeply and inexplicably unsettled that I decided I would insist upon a break. Perhaps I was ill, coming down with something that the heat was exacerbating. I would clean myself, go to bed early, and awaken with a clearer mind.

I do not know what drove me to it, because it is not something I had ever done before, but before leaving the parlor I placed my hand on her covered chest and said aloud,

“I am sorry whoever you are that your short life was so troubled.” And then I prayed, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.” With that, I left.

I checked in on father and it seemed as though all of the family excluding the deceased’s brother had left. It appeared that he and father were making payment arrangements for our services. Not wanting to disturb them, I left a quick note on his desk to inform him that our new client was cleaned and prepared for embalming. I added that I was not feeling well, and would be taking an early rest.

Given my strange mood, I anticipated a fitful night, but I slept more deeply than I had in years. When I woke in the morning I felt as if I had been drugged. It was as though I had to push against an invisible resistance, like molasses in my veins, slowing both my thinking and movement. Once out of bed and dressed, I began to gain a bit of foothold and felt alert enough to make my way downstairs for breakfast.

On most mornings father played operetta as he dined, but as I descended the stairs it was unusually quiet. Upon entering the dining room, there was no sign of either father or our normal breakfasts. We were far from overly lavish meals, but by this time in the day there was usually tea, bread, preserves, eggs, or porridge all set across the table. Perhaps he was feeling ill as well and slept in. I began back up the stairs to check for him in his room and felt once more a heavy dread settle upon me. With each step a gnawing pit in my stomach grew, until the time I finally opened his door and felt as though it might burst.

His room was empty, and his bed made. He was up and about then, and there were only so many places within our small home he could be. I presumed something went wrong last night with the financial arrangements, and he was delayed in beginning his work on our new client. The process was in many ways a race against time, so he must have skipped breakfast to get to it.

Looking back now, I am not sure I believed that even then. If I had, I would not have felt so incredibly afraid.

I went straight away then to the embalming parlor where I was met with a closed door. The silence was profound. It was more than the absence of our usual operetta that troubled me. The funeral home was often quiet, but there was something tangible and oppressive in its quality now. As I reached for the doorknob, it seemed as though any sound would shatter this fragile moment and send me spiraling over an unknown precipice.

I steeled my nerves and opened the door, straining to see inside the parlor. The lamps were unlit and the only illumination came from the small bit of natural light pouring in from the hallway. I took a few cautious steps inside and noticed immediately the smell. It was a pungent and obscene combination of rot and iron and earth that threatened to curdle my stomach. Before I had the opportunity to make sense of it, I took a misstep and my world tilted upon its axis. With a sickening thud my head collided with the hard floor. 

I think I lost consciousness, but for how long I cannot say. When I came to, I attempted to push myself up, but my hands slid against the slick floor. I was horrified at the possibilities of what the substance I realized I was soaked with could be. Slowly I managed to stand, and I walked carefully to the counter to light a lamp.

What I beheld then will haunt my nightmares for eternity. My father laid sprawled upon the floor in a grotesque display. His pallid face was frozen in an expression of agony, with his eyes wide in terror as if he witnessed death itself coming for him. A pool of crimson blood spread like a rug beneath his contorted form. His neck appeared torn open, all that remained was mangled flesh scarcely able to connect his head to his body. I recoiled in horror, screaming as I tried to run from the room. I slipped again, and in my terrified desperation crawled out on my hands and knees as I wept.

Once past the doorway, I collapsed prone onto the floor and sobbed so heavily I could hardly breathe. After some time, I stood and turned back to the parlor. A realization dawned on me with bone chilling clarity. Mary was gone. I considered in a desperate grab for my sanity that my fathers’ murderer had stolen her body for some foul purpose. But I knew. I knew that she had killed him. I heard folk tales of what could become of those who took their own lives, cast out from both Heaven and Hell.

I had to run. I could take a horse into town and get help.

It was as I stood up from the floor that I heard a soft humming behind me.

I was paralyzed, unable to turn and face the monstrous entity moving towards me. I screamed in hopeless terror.

Then came a gentle shushing, like that of a mother to an inconsolable child. I felt her breath on my neck and feared I might faint.

“Will you not look upon me kind girl?”

Her voice was musical and commanding. I felt my resolve flickering like candlelight against an encroaching darkness. I turned, unable to stop myself and my breath hitched in my throat as I faced her.

She stood in front of me, so uncomfortably close, looking just as she had on the table. Her pale skin shimmered in the dim light, and her eyes like pools of midnight stared intensely at me with something resemblant to curiosity. Her beauty was spoiled however, by my fathers’ blood upon her face.

“You,” I whispered. “You murdered him.”

She tilted her head at that, and stood silently for a moment before asking, “What is your name?”

I did not want to tell her. I did not want to be known by a monster. 

I took one step back as I said, “You are dead, and I would like for you to leave.”

“I am dead,” she seemed to contemplate the idea as she spoke it. “Where shall I go if not a funeral home?”

I continued moving backwards and in an imperceptible instant she closed the distance between us and inhaled deeply, breathing in my scent.

“A nameless girl like me. Shall I call you Mary as well? Come with me nameless girl.”

She was predatory, but more than that there was something animalistic in her countenance. I knew that if I were to run she would kill me. It would be reflexive, like a cat swatting curiously at a mouse.

“And where am I to follow you to?” I asked.

She smiled at that, a beautiful, bloody smile.

“Oh, my nameless girl, what fun we shall have together!”

She led me back up the stairs, where in a perverse reversal of our roles, she insisted on helping me bathe. Oddly, the sense of unease I had been assailed with since her arrival had all but faded. The worst had come to pass, and now I would wait for death to claim me. I sat silently and statuesque in the tub, the water turned a sickly brown from fathers’ blood as she cleaned my hair. She talked the whole while of the places we would go, the experiences we would share. How insane she was.

After dressing me, she laid me in my bed and instructed me to rest while she prepared a meal for me.

Days passed that way, as if I were trapped in a ceaseless nightmare. She doted upon me in an inexplicable show of twisted devotion. She forced food upon me all while I grew weaker by the hour, withering in unending, numbing terror. It was as if despite her monstrous nature, she felt some pull to care for me now that father was gone, rotting away on the floor of the embalming room. If our circumstances were less gruesome, I might have thought it something akin to being honor bound.

On the third day of my imprisonment, she left the home for the first time since Mr. Davies had brought her to me. We near to out of food and a trip to the well was necessary. I think she had genuinely come to fear for my wellbeing. I was too weak to escape, she must have been confident in that. Though we did not speak of it, we each knew she had been feeding upon me. How else was it that she could retain such vitality as I slipped closer and closer to death?

I was lying on my bed, exhausted and without hope. She sat gently next to me and placed her hand atop mine. Her flesh was soft and warm. 

“You are not well, my nameless girl,” she said. “You eat too little and lose your strength. What foods would you like for me to prepare you?”

“You steal my strength as you steal my life.”

She seemed pained by that, her expression turning sorrowful. “I do regret that we did not meet before my transformation. I would have liked us to be friends. This is not a world that was built for those like myself, so I was locked away to wither and perish without kindness or witness. But in my death, you witnessed me. You were the first to show me any humanity since my childhood. Now I am to exist in this unlife. We are bound nameless girl, by forces beyond my comprehension. I am sorry to you for that, but nevertheless it is true.”

She kissed my temple, and her lips lingered for a moment as I shuddered.

“I will return shortly, and you will be strong again.”

I drifted into unconsciousness then, something deeper than sleep, and when I awoke it was to screaming. I heard footsteps, pounding up the staircase and saw the man father had been in meetings with the day he died. He must have come for a final viewing of his brother and found father in his horrific state. He looked pale, as if he had just been sick as he ran to my bed.

“Oh, poor child, poor child,” he cried, shaking as he scooped me into his arms.

The next several hours are fragmented in my mind. He carried me down the stairs and placed me in his carriage. I slipped in an out of consciousness on the frantic, bumpy ride into town. I think I was taken to a doctor, but everything happened rather quickly. Other men came in, asking me questions about my father, and what had happened to the both of us. A kindly old man, who I believe was the physician shooed them away.

Once I had regained sufficient strength and the physician was confident that I was no longer at death’s door, investigators returned. I told them my story in its entirety, knowing of course how it sounded. But what else could I say? The looks in their eyes were so alien to me, an infuriating mix of disgust and pity that in time I came to know all too well. They thought me insane, and there were instances when I half agreed.

In lieu of any sensical explanation, I was accused of fathers’ murder. The prevailing theory I believe was that my fragile female constitution was warped by a lifelong exposure to death. I never had the opportunity to stand trial but was instead carted to the asylum where even old Mr. Davies keeps his distance from me. To be a pariah in a place such as this is as isolating an experience as I can imagine. I grieve for my father all while bearing the weight of a crime I did not commit. 

Despite the hatred I feel for Mary, or whoever she is, I find myself longing for her. I think I understand now how suicide had freed her of the life I am now imprisoned within. I have considered it often for myself, but at times I swear I hear her humming in the night. Without words, she calls for me. 

I know somehow that she is coming for me, perhaps through the bond she insisted we share. Whether she comes to free me, kill me, or an unholy amalgamation of the two, she is coming.





Whitney McShan is a Texas native and currently lives outside of Austin with her beautiful wife and son. She loves all things strange and is ceaselessly interested in what a societies monsters reflect about their values and beliefs.